Today, I’m out with my FOCUS Craft Fair group at an Aberdeenshire town named Insch (Scottish Gaelic: An Innis or Innis Mo Bheathain), about 14 miles North West of my home.
The Gaelic name for Insch really appeals to me, especially the Bheathain part, because one of the minor characters in my Celtic Fervour Series is named Beathan. Beathan means ‘lives by a clear stream’ and when writing Book 1, I also found a reference to it meaning ‘one with a great future’. That sounded like a perfect name for a child who had been predicted by Nara’s (my main female lead character) druid bretheren to be one who would, in the future, be a leader of the tribes. Back in 2011, I chose to simplify the spelling hoping to make it easier for my readers- but now I’m not so sure I should have.
Beathan is in Book 4 of my series (currently being written/that’s still an ‘oh, dear’ moment…) and, according to my long term plan, he will be the major character in the last planned book of the series – Book 5. (BTW- I might have to give up all of my daily pursuits to accomplish this! )
But back to Insch (pronounced IN SH). Today is the first time I’ve visited Insch to sell my novels and like all of the new venues that I’ve visited during the last year, I’ve learned a little about the place I’m visiting. Though it’s only a small town of just over 2 thousand inhabitants, it’s on the train line between the main cities of Aberdeen and Inverness. That might not seem like earth shattering information but most Aberdeenshire towns and villages don’t have a direct train link.
I’ve driven past Insch many times on the way to Inverness and have always admired the imposing structure that’s up on the nearby hillside. From a distance it resembles a whimsical folly, but it’s not- it’s a lot more than that.
The Hill of Dunnideer (locally also spelled as Dunnydeer) was the site of an ancient rectangular hillfort, thought to be of the Middle Iron Age (possibly 350-190 BC), though dating of it is uncertain. As with many of the other high hills around Aberdeenshire, the view from the top of Dunnideer is spectacular. It’s easy for me to imagine how those ancient inhabitants of the hillfort observed what was going on in the valleys below them as they peered over the high walled ramparts. It’s not too far a stretch of the imagination to envisage a system of ‘fire’ signals going on between the high hillforts which were dotted around, the flares alerting the tribespeople of the Garioch area to any substantial threat to their livelihood – like the huge hazard of the Ancient Roman invaders I write about in my Celtic Fervour Series and in The Taexali Game, my time travel novel for teens. As a centre of power, religious or secular, its stone walls would have been very impressive.
There’s almost nothing left of the structure of that ancient hillfort. though some of the stones from its walled enclosure were used many centuries later to build what we can see today. What’s still visible now is the arch of a pointed medieval window, which originally gave light to a first floor hall of a rectangular tower house. When intact the tower house must have been a sight to see towering even higher over the landscape than the hillfort would have done, and was possibly very threatening to what would have been a very simple rural agrarian community working the foothills below. it would have stamped the ‘serfdom’ status on the people of the land as few other things would have done. it wouldn’t have seemed that the overlord was an ‘out of sight- out of mind’ ruler. His tower house was definitely ‘in their face’ and would have been a daily reminder of who was boss.
The building was first mentioned in writing as the stronghold of Sir John de Balliol in 1260, though is likely to be much older than that. Possibly the earliest tower house of its kind in Scotland, one of the walls has been known as Gregory’s Wall and it may have been built by Gregory the Great in AD 890. If not by Gregory, it could have been constructed by order of David, Earl of Huntingdon and Garioch in 1178. This David became King David I of Scotland.
The following sites give more information on him, some of which may expalin why he was possibly the one to commission the building of the tower house.
What’s also unusual about the remains at Dunnideer tower house (sometimes called Dunnideer Castle) is that the granite blocks used to build it had been vitrified. A vitrified hillfort was one where extreme heat caused a fusion of the stones and some form of integrated wood, the continued conflagration melding the whole together. Charcoal deposits left from the vitification process have been used for the carbon dating- which resulted in the ‘B.C.’ dates.
This vitrification process, i.e. adding such extreme heat on purpose is not well understood yet. The reason for it remains unclear, though archaeologists don’t believe the ‘heat’ process was done to strengthen the building during construction. One theory is that vitrification took place after a deliberate destruction of the stronghold, either because it was under threat from an enemy, or because the structure was no longer needed for its original use. Some theories indicate that the hillforts like Dunnideer were not built for protection reasons but were perhaps religious or spiritual centres and that the eventual destruction may have been due to a change in the belief system, or because the site was no longer used for the same sacred purposes.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to know who lived there and why? Does anyone reading this have any theories they’d like to share on what the hillfort’s purpose was?
I’ll be thinking about it as I drive past…and I’ll also be composing an approx 100 word advertising pitch for my forthcoming radio advertising slot having had a successful interview last Wednesday. I’m doing the voice-over myself so I’ll probably be practising out loud in the car!
Meanwhile, have a lovely weekend, everyone.
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